Does Volunteerism Prevent Bullying, or Vice Versa?

Bullying has become a present day epidemic, of sorts. It is unclear whether acts of bullying have increased in recent years, as witnessed by media coverage and internet exposure, or whether media and internet coverage has portrayed acts of bullying that have always existed. This chicken-and-egg theory is also being applied to volunteerism and bullying. Research on bullying has shown that children who bully have fewer interpersonal skills and have more difficulty regulating their emotions than those who do not bully. Interestingly, volunteerism has been shown to increase social and emotional skills. In fact, volunteerism itself can help children develop empathy, a key emotional element in interpersonal relationships. But until now, no one has asked whether children who volunteer bully less, or if bullies volunteer less than non-bullies.

Melissa I. Gebbia of the Department of Psychology at Molloy College in New York wanted to address this conundrum. In a recent study, Gebbia assessed the level of volunteerism teens had during their middle school years, and how this related to bullying behavior and emotional intelligence. She found that teens who volunteered more during middle school bullied less later on. Additionally, she found that volunteering experience enhanced relationship skills. Not surprisingly, Gebbia also noticed that the teens with the highest levels of aggression and bullying behavior had the fewest volunteerism experiences during early adolescence. These teens had weaker relational skills and less emotional intelligence as well.

One other area that Gebbia looked at was stress management. She theorized that volunteering would empower adolescents with tools to cope with stress. In her study, Gebbia found no evidence for this. However, the volunteers did manage their relationships and emotions better than the non-volunteers. Even though the students did not exhibit stress management skills that were direct results of volunteering, this does not minimize the positive impact of their altruistic activities. Overall, Gebbia believes that this research is important to tackling the bullying problem in our society. Although it is still unclear whether volunteering decreases the potential for bullying, it clearly was linked to less bullying behavior in this sample. She added, “Future research needs to build upon this and use a longitudinal design to identify when those interpersonal skills and aggressive tendencies develop, before or after the middle school volunteer experience.”

Gebbia, Melissa I., Martine C. Maculaitis, and Cheryl A. Camenzuli. The relationship between volunteer experience quality and adolescent bullying. North American Journal of Psychology 14.3 (2012): 455-70. Print.

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  • Keller


    January 11th, 2013 at 4:00 AM

    I have witnessed in my own daughter and in other youth groups that I have worked with in the past at my church just how meaningful and impactful that volunteering in the community can be for them.

    I think that when kids go outside of their comfort zone they see the reality that others live in and they are no longer afraid of the things that they do not know. I think that a lot of times bullying and the reasoning behind it stems form being afraid of the unknown.

    Volunteering with others gives them the chance to be introduced face to face with many of these issues, and allow them to not be so afraid anymore. It also gives them the chance to see how they can make a positive difference in the lives of other people and I think that this is something that is very important to them at this age.

  • George


    January 11th, 2013 at 11:24 PM

    Young people who volunteer and those that bully often exist in completely different sets and there is hardly any intersection between the two sets.Which aspect predicts the other I do not know but where one is present the other surely isn’t that’s for sure!

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